Trump in translation

Translation is part art, part science. No matter the content, it’s always a fine balance, but this election season has pushed the demands of translation to new heights. Before addressing the translation issue, though, let’s take a look at some of the topics that have kept linguists busy lately.

Some have been looking beyond what the presidential candidates say and focusing on how they say ittheir authenticity, their emotional tone and their analytic thinking. Others have focused on the impact of one three-letter word: the. When used together with a demographic subgroup (“the blacks”, “the gays”, “the Muslims”), “the” can signal distance and otherness, and also suggest homogeneous thought and action on part of that group, notes Business Insider.  

Others still have looked at turn-taking during the debates.  The Atlantic notes the culturally-universal gap between conversational turns tends to average 200 milliseconds, yet there’s enough time to feel the difference between a turn and an interruption. When you look at gender differences in turn-taking, though, there is a tendency for men to interrupt women far more often—what has recently come to be known as “manterruptions”. This was seen not just between Trump and Clinton, but between the two male vice presidential candidates and their female debate moderator as well.

Thanks to audio/video recordings and transcripts, linguists have the luxury of going back after a speech or debate to conduct linguistic and conversational analysis (though click here to read about how Trump’s speeches aren’t meant to be read).  In fact, it’s as a result of that process that linguists were able to determine that Trump is actually saying “big league”, not “bigly”.  However, it’s a completely different challenge for linguists charged with simultaneously interpreting speech into other languages.  

Time is not on your side during simultaneous interpretation, and when you’re struggling to follow the original, Quartz notes that it’s even more challenging—and at times “nearly impossible—to provide the foreign language equivalent.  Take, for example, Trump’s frequent debate interjection: ”Wrong!”.  There’s not enough time to provide the accurate translation in Spanish, “Eso no es correcto”, so the interpreter chose “Es falso,” (“That is not true”), inadvertently making Trump’s remarks sound more polite.  Other examples demonstrate how Trump in translation comes across at times more authoritative and more sexist but also softer.

There will certainly be so much more to analyze in the days leading up to the elections, but I’ll close by thanking the candidates for bringing awareness of language to the forefront this season.  Not everyone will pursue a degree in linguistics as a result, but perhaps people will have a greater understanding of the impact of our words and conversational styles.